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From the archives: After fire, art icon James Rosenquist faces bleak landscape

Editor's note: In 2009, a fire destroyed the home, office, studio and art of renowned pop artist James Rosenquist at the age of 75. "It's all gone," he said then. "I'm just wiped out." Authorities labeled the fire suspicious but the case was closed. Rosenquist died on March 31, 2017 at the age of 83.

Now, nearly nine years later, there's an interesting development in that fire: investigators looking into allegations of fraud at the now defunct Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department have revealed that a witness said two of the ex-fire chiefs under investigation told him that they set the brush fire that eventually destroyed Rosenquist's home and artwork.

Former staff writer Joel Anderson wrote this story about the fire for the April 27, 2009 edition of the St. Petersburg Times.

FIRE CHIEFS GONE WILD: Ex-Hernando Beach volunteer fire chiefs ran free-spending 'frat house,' investigators find

ARIPEKA — In only a few hours, a home, two studios, years of memories and artwork of untold value were reduced to smoldering rubble. But a day later, the conversation kept drifting toward a November art show in New York City.

"Everyone who thinks we should keep going," longtime assistant Beverly Coe asked Sunday, "raise their hands."

The six staff members eagerly lifted their hands. But renowned artist James Rosenquist kept one hand around a glass of pale lager and the other on his paint-spattered white jeans.

"We had a lot done already," Rosenquist said, settling deeply into a black leather couch. "I'm trying to decide whether to get going or not."

One of the world's most famous painters, the 75-year-old Rosenquist faces an uncertain future after a brush fire swept through his home, office and studio Saturday. A second home also was lost, officials said. No one was injured.

"It's all gone," Rosenquist said. "I'm just wiped out."

EPILOGUE: James Rosenquist, who elevated the Tampa Bay art world, dead at 83 (April 2, 2017)

The blaze touched off in the remote area about 3 a.m., but members of the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department said they had the fire contained and called off a crew responding from the state Division of Forestry.

About 12 hours later, the blaze flared up again and quickly ripped through the thick brush between Indian Bay Road and Osowaw Boulevard. Crews were trying to protect the structures but had to pull out once they learned about the volatile materials stored in Rosenquist's studio.

After firefighters retreated, a propane tank in the artist's studio exploded.

Much of the fire had been contained by Sunday afternoon.

Firefighters said the 62-acre blaze was suspicious and they were investigating the cause. Unusually dry weather conditions, the isolation of the area and the proximity of Rosenquist's property to the forest probably contributed to the extensive damage.

"In 20 years, this is the first house I've lost," said Dave Fogler, a supervisor with the Department of Forestry. "But there was a solid wall of fire out here. There was nothing anyone could do."

That was of little consolation to Rosenquist and residents of the tiny, arty gulf-front community that straddles the Hernando-Pasco county line.

Hours after the fire, dozens gathered at local grocery store and bait shop Norfleet Fish Camp to gab about the blaze and share their sorrows over a bucket of fried chicken and several bottles of wine.

"I feel really bad for Jim," said Mark Griffiths, a neighbor and friend. "He lost 30 years of his life in there. It all just went, 'Kaboom!' "

With roads closed by officials, friend Carl Norfleet took Rosenquist out into the Gulf of Mexico by boat so they could see what was happening. Rosenquist had been traveling around the state and returned to Aripeka just in time to see his home burn down.

"He wasn't emotional," Norfleet said. "But we were all antsy. The (propane) tanks were just booming with each explosion."

COLUMNIST DAN DEWITT: 'Aripeka Jim' Rosenquist left a lasting impression in coastal community (April 6, 2017)

Rosenquist settled in Aripeka in 1976, building a stilt house and small studio shortly after his first wife and son recuperated from a car accident in Tampa. He is known as "Jim" to most of the locals, just a Midwestern guy who enjoys an alcoholic beverage and putters around town in jeans and a T-shirt.

Known for billboard painting, fine art and interpretations of the pop art movement, Rosenquist's best-known local work might be the giant Band-Aid sculpture that he donated to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

He has also collaborated with Graphicstudio, the prestigious atelier at the University of South Florida.

"He's an Aripeka gem," Norfleet said. "He can't leave."

As of now, Rosenquist has no plans to go. He said he will remain in Aripeka and would like to rebuild his home and studios.

By Sunday afternoon, Rosenquist had already moved into a guest home built on towering stilts across the street from the simmering ruins of his old house. He was surrounded by his wife, Mimi Thompson, and a bubbly group of assistants, all of them pondering what was lost.

After losing some of his work in the devastating no-name storm of 1993, Rosenquist figured he had suffered through his share of disasters.

"I lost quite a bit then," he said. "But that was a once in a lifetime storm."

This time, Rosenquist isn't quite sure where or how the recovery will start. In particular, he lamented the loss of a mural commissioned by the government of France that measured 133 feet high by 24 feet wide.

But his assistants were already talking about arrangements for the November show in New York, going over plans for turning the guest home into a work space and encouraging him to get started as soon as possible.

Rosenquist was not prepared to commit to anything. If only for a day, the future could wait.

"I just need to break this spell," he said, taking a swig of Beck's. "But we'll get at it again."